The latest incarnation of Microsoft’s office suite, Office 2000, has hit the streets to mixed reactions. There are those who have to have the latest and greatest versions of everything, and they’ve welcomed the upgrade without really knowing what the changes are. Others are skeptical of the need to roll out yet another expensive upgrade to a suite that suffices for user’s current needs. Finally, there are those who are trying to decide whether it’s worth spending the money on the upgrade. Is there anything in Office 2000 that justifies you making the investment in time, rollout hassles, and backwards compatibility issues? What does Office 2000 add that you really need? Does is solve any existing problems with Office 97? In this article we take a good look at the latest release of the Office suite and try to answer these questions.

There are four versions of Office 2000, similar to the bundles offered with Office 97. The Standard edition includes Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint. The Small Business edition drops PowerPoint and adds Publisher and Small Business Tools, a collection of utilities. The Professional edition is Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, and Small Business Tools. Finally, the Premium addition includes all the tools of the Professional edition and adds FrontPage and PhotoDraw. All four versions include Internet Explorer 5.0. All four editions are available as upgrades or complete packages. For the upgrades you need to have Office 95 or Office 97. Upgrades for specific components from competitors products are supported, such as Word Perfect and Lotus 123, but these install only the specific tool (word processor or spreadsheet) and not the entire suite. There is no entire suite upgrade from a competitor’s product.

All four versions of Office 2000 have new installation and configuration wizards that require quite a bit of time to complete. You had better figure on about half and hour for most installations on Pentium IIs and IIIs. All the user interaction is at the start of the process where a single dialog lets you choose which components to install. You can also select to load items from the Office 2000 CD-Rom only when you need them. After that, you can leave the machine to complete the installation by itself. A reboot is necessary after the installation, followed by a few minutes of optimization and configuration. Microsoft uses a long software license key number with this release, and the key is required to install the product. Older versions of Office can be removed automatically

What’s New?

Office 2000 adds several new features to the suite presented in Office 97. The most noticeable changes for a user are twofold: the toolbars look different, and the Web is highly integrated.

Let’s start with the latter first. Essentially any of the suite tools can publish to the Web. A document in Word, a spreadsheet in Excel, a calendar in Outlook, or a presentation in PowerPoint can all be generated for publishing straight to a Web server. The generated pages look exactly as they do in the native application, offering true WYSIWYG for the Web. Extending the Web integration even further, IE5 allows you to work on a Word or Excel file from within the browser as long as FrontPage extensions are supported on the Web server.

To support this enhanced Web capability there is the ability to create Web folders that allows multiple authors to work on the same Web document. Web folders can be browsed and manipulated as you would any local document using an Explorer-like interface. The Web folder aspect of Web integration has a number of useful applications. First, if you are publishing on an intranet you can store working documents on a Web page, and allow anyone to examine and mark up the document. This is handled through the Web Discussions tool which allows insertion of both text and binary attachments or comments anywhere in the document. A Discuss button included with IE5 lets you view the ongoing discussions and changes to the documents. A subscription and notification feature lets you receive e-mail whenever a change is made to a document stored in a Web folder.

The appearance of all the Office tools has changed a little. The most noticeable change is the toolbar, which in most applications is now one long toolbar at the top of the screen instead of two or three lines of toolbars. You can still move the toolbars around in any order, and select which toolbars are to appear, but the visual change will unnerve some users, especially those who have customized their screen’s appearance.

In this regard, one annoyance for many users upgrading from Office 97 to Office 2000 is that configuration settings for some of the individual tools are lost. For example, if you have Word 97 start up in the E: drive instead of C:\My Documents, that and other custom settings are discarded during the upgrade. Curiously, other settings such as the use of Autoformatting do carry over cleanly. You will still need to go through each tool individually and reenter your custom settings or verify that your choices are still valid, though. In the same vein, if you customized toolbars or select certain toolbars to appear when you start the application, those changes are discarded and need to be reapplied.

While on the subject of toolbars and menus, one new feature with Office 2000 is sure to annoy some users. Office 2000 applications try to decide which features you use regularly and which you don’t. The applications then modify the menus and toolbars to present only the frequently used choices. This will drive some users nuts as items they use only once a month, for example, suddenly disappear from their normal places and reappear buried under other menus. This “intelligence” can be worked around, but some users will take a while to understand what is going on.

A new collect and paste function is included with Office 2000. This lets you copy contents from a number of courses into any Office 2000 application, including the browser. Up to a dozen chunks of material can be stored on the clipboard and pasted into an application en-masse or individually selected. This approach reduces the bouncing between windows with cut-and-paste operations many of us endured with Office 97.

What else is new? Word adds a few new features like a synonym finder accessed through the right mouse button pop-up menu (this was available in Office 97 but had to be accessed through menu bar choices). The change to a pop-up trigger speeds up the polishing of your documents. Word 2000 does a remarkable job as an HTML editor, now. The changes to the word processing tool include a simple frames editor, templates for Web page designs, and better graphics handling.

Excel has a few new additions, but the most notable change is the addition of a new interface to PivotTables. PivotTables were included in the last version of Office but were difficult to set up and modify, leading most people to ignore this powerful tool. The new interface lets you drag and drop fields onto a worksheet to build up the table you need, then quickly graph the data. PivotCharts are the graphs associated with the PivotTable, handy for analyzing large masses or complex assortments of data. Drag and drop even works on the chart itself, which allows for even more control and greater simplicity. Excel can use OLAP (OnLine Analytical Process) to access relational databases for queries, as well as OLE DB for access to Microsoft’s SQL Server data.

PowerPoint’s toolset remains the same although the default view of a presentation has been changed. A three-pane view is now the default, with a list of slides down the left side, each slide expanded in the main right-side pane, and notes or comments in a smaller pane at the bottom of the window. All the panes can be resized or removed to return to the view used in the last version.

Access 2000 has some minor changes in this iteration, but hardly enough to trumpet except for the Web publishing capability. One major pain for upgrading users is that this release of Access is not backwards compatible with earlier file formats. Every other tool in the suite allows older versions of Office to be imported without conversion, and files can be saved to the older formats without loss of data. Except in Access, where conversions are necessary. While there may be some underlying reason for this change it is not evident from the updates to this database tool.

Outlook 2000 is a complete rework of what was a relatively poor e-mail and personal information manager package. In earlier versions of Office you got the distinct impression Outlook was added at the last minute, and integration was minimal. The new version feels like part of the overall suite and has better reliability, too.

FrontPage 2000 is an iteration of the popular FrontPage 98. The changes in the 2000 edition are many, although the overall look and use of the tool is consistent with the older version. FrontPage 2000 allows you to quickly and easily design a complex Web site, without knowing a bit of HTML coding. FrontPage extensions are necessary on the Web server to take advantage of most of the FrontPage 2000 features, though. PhotoDraw is less successful as a product in the suite. PhotoDraw is adequate but by no means pushes the state of photographic and image manipulation. There are other tools that offer better features, and the integration with Office 2000 is minimal.

One change that you will either like or hate is the changes to the taskbar. Office 2000 uses a Single Document Interface, which means for each document open in an application a separate button is placed on the toolbar. This is a major change from earlier versions where a single button for Word, for example, was used. You had to use the Window menu button to switch between documents. With Single Document Interface, each document has a separate button. Every application in the Office 2000 suite behaves the same way. While this makes switching between documents easy it does lead to a crowded taskbar when you work with multiple applications or documents.

Can you make use of the changes?

The Web integration in Office 2000 is well done, but to take advantage of these features will require some work on a corporate or workgroup level. First, to use Web folders and markups everyone needs to standardize on Internet Explorer. There is no way to use Netscape Navigator within this content. Second, an intranet with the FrontPage extensions on the Web server is necessary. While these are relatively small changes at first glance, they may mean radical changes in networking and Web usage. Depending on the nature of the company or organization, you may need to set up subnets to fully leverage the document revision features and Web discussions properly among related users.

If you are publishing documents to an intra- or internet Web site, the changes in Office 2000 will make your job much easier. Instead of having to work around the Web publishing capabilities of Office 97, Office 2000 really does make publishing as simple as a Save As button. This change in approach to Web documents is made by treating HTML as a native file format, in addition to the traditional filetypes. XML is used extensively in order to provide the WYSIWYG document publishing.

The ever-popular Y2K issue is dealt with in Office 2000 by a series of changes to older applications, although the changes are minimal and not noticeable to most users. Some calculation errors in Excel and Access have been patched, but these are mostly available in the Service Pack releases for Office 97. Further patches to Office 2000 are likely to arrive before the year-end, patching ever-smaller holes. There are no readily identifiable Y2K issues with Office 2000, and it passed all the tests we could gather from the Web.

Individual changes to the suite applications are not likely to excite many users. The only change that is going to be warmly welcomed is the PivotTable and PivotChart redesign in Excel. Other than that, the advances in each of the tool are incremental. A company-wide change to Office 2000 should keep this in mind. Unless you need Web publishing, few advantages will accrue to users. For network-wide installations, though, network and system administrators will find a lot to like in Office 2000.

Office-wide installation

The new installation wizard is a good step towards easier office-wide installations. A better approach is through the Office 2000 Resource Kit, available from the Microsoft Web site. The Resource Kit allows you to create a basic installation of Office 2000 for all users on a network, which can be downloaded by users individually. This should reduce the need for technical support and training, if you make the proper choice for the network-wide installation.

The Resource Kit actually allows even better handling of office-wide installations than you may think. There are two components to this tool. The Windows Installer file lets you specify the applications and components that make up the basic installation. Then, the Transform file can be used to enhance or modify the basic installation, customizing the install for different groups of users. For example, you can specify a basic load of Outlook, Word and Excel for all users, but then have a group which also gets PowerPoint and another that gets Access and FrontPage. You can control down to the level of components in each application, which allows for fine granularity tuning.

Another useful component of the Resource Kit is the Profile Wizard that allows you to modify the base installation for a prototypical user. You can modify the menus, toolbars, and options in most of the applications. These settings are applied to the Transform file and distributed to control the distribution settings to users. As you might expect, you can have a different Profile for each type of user specified in the Transforms.

Because of the sheer size of Office 2000, network distributions are slow and tend to increase network traffic dramatically. Scheduling upgrades for slack times is one way to roll out the product, or have small groups of users update in sequence. Otherwise, as soon as several users hit the distribution server, the network traffic hits peak as does the server load.

Administrators will welcome one other aspect of Office 2000 that is new: self-repairing software. When an Office 2000 application starts up it checks for all the required files. If any are missing, they are automatically reinstalled from CD-ROM or server. This eliminates the “missing dll” errors that plagued earlier releases, especially those installed on users who are not sufficiently versed in deleting files from their Program Files folder. The procedure works so well, in fact, that you can delete word.exe and excel.exe and have them loaded off the distribution server without the user doing anything special. If Office 2000 is installed from a CD-ROM, the user must supply the disc, but that’s the extent of the user’s involvement. This feature alone should cut down on many technical support issues.

Look and Feel

Other than the changes in toolbars, the ever-modifying menus, and the three-pane view in PowerPoint, most users will not notice any impact in their use of Office 2000 applications. The behavior of the individual components is consistent with Office 97, requiring no migration training. The oft-annoying Office Assistant is embedded in each application, but it is easily turned off.

The only application that shows a different face to the user is Outlook, which now looks like a more integrated, rounded PIM. Mailbox functions are exactly the same as the last release, but there is more configurability. The associated calendaring and contact management functions are well thought out and likely to suffice for most users. The ability to use Outlook with the Web and other tools like Net Meeting will enhance the tool’s usage in network-wide installations.

For those who like to customize their applications through the API, the same functionality that was provided with Office 97 is available in the Office 2000 version. Word Basic is supported for custom functions in all applications, and through the API programmers can embed more complicated routines. These can be rolled out company-wide using the same network distribution tools as the basic Office suite.

Do you upgrade?

The choice to upgrade from Office 97 to Office 2000 comes down to one real issue: do you need Web integration. If the intranet or Internet plays a big role in your daily life, then Office 2000 is definitely a worthy upgrade. The ease with which you can publish documents will surprise you, and lead to ever more useful Web sites.

If the Web is a secondary or non-essential item to your plans, then the decision to upgrade is much tougher. The Y2K issue is a non-starter as Service Packs already updated Office 97 to be compliant. Backwards compatibility is also a non-issue as Office 2000 and Office 97 files are easily moved between suites with the sole exception of Access files. While Office 2000 does add some useful features to the Office 97 applications, there are few that can be considered essential for most users, especially considering the rather hefty upgrade cost. Sure, PivotTables and PivotCharts are better in Excel 2000. The handy thesaurus is neat in Word 2000. PowerPoint 2000 lets you see your entire presentation a little easier than the last release. But are these incremental changes worth the upgrade price? For many users, the answer will be no. Fortunately, if you do decide to roll Office 2000 out, the network distribution capabilities are there to help you.

Sidebar: Corel WordPerfect Suite 2000

Corel beat Microsoft to the punch by release WordPerfect Suite 2000 well ahead of Office 2000. Whether this had any real effect on upgrade sales isn’t clear. However, it is evident that Corel spent a considerable amount of time updating the applications in their Suite. The primary change in WordPerfect 2000 is a preview feature for changes, as well as new Web publishing tools. Trellix is a clever tool for designing hyperlinked documents for Web sites, while NetPerfect (formerly know as NetDocs) is designed for batch publishing (something lacking from Office 2000).

The full package of WordPerfect Suite 2000 include WordPerfect 9, Quattro Pro 9, Corel Presentations 9, Corel Print Office (a small business publishing tool) and the PIM CorelCentral 9. Also included is a plethora of wizards, templates and tools to enhance the individual components. The Dragon NaturallySpeaking version of the suite includes probably the widest used consumer voice recognition system available, which works with both WordPerfect and Quattro Pro.

While Corel has enhanced the Web publishing features of the WordPerfect Suite considerably, the overall effect is not as pervasive as Office 2000’s. Trellix is a remarkable tool and offers some features not available in Word, but most users will not make use of the full package. WordPerfect is still a better word processor that Word in many minds, but the lack of market share may force users to use Word. For those who decide to stick it out with WordPerfect, the latter can easily read and write Word 2000 files without time-consuming conversions.

Quattro Pro allows bigger spreadsheets than Excel, but how many of us need a million rows? Quattro Pro does read Excel files properly, including macros, and can export to the Excel format (in fact, .xls can be made the default format). To compete with PivotTables Corel adds Dynamic Cross Tabs Reports, which behave much the same.

For network-wide distribution, Corel offers the Corel Distribute feature which lets administrators create a profile and install the software with the preconfigured profiles from a server. Unlike Office 2000, though, only a single profile can exist at one time, requiring changes for each type of user.